Every time I see a river

If you were to walk into my house, one of the first things you might see is an oil painting of a New York Central steam tugboat on the Hudson River.  My husband and I first laid eyes on this painting about two years into our marriage. We were visiting Annapolis for a weekend away before he would leave on a six-month deployment. We both immediately loved the painting as it was a scene with which we were both familiar starting in our childhoods. In fact, in the painting my husband could show me his hometown, Weehawken, on the distant shore off the tug’s bow, and I could show him Edgewater, where my father had kept our boat on the Jersey shore off the tug’s stern. We both knew that this was a painting of where we came from because, for both of us, if we were on the Hudson, we were home.  For a young couple starting our life as a Navy family, we knew we would often be far from home. This painting would be a constant remembrance of our shared roots. However, as it was painted by W. G. Muller, a well-known maritime historical artist, the tugboat painting cost $4000, which was way over our newlywed budget.

My story about the Hudson begins when my father bought a 24-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser, the Stella Maris, shortly after I was born and he was appointed to the bench in Bergen County, New Jersey. When I was five or six, my greatest delight was on a Sunday afternoon when Dad would take us out on the Stella. The outing was always up the Hudson from Edgewater to Tarrytown just the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge. I would sit on the bow of the boat, resting against the cabin’s front windows, feeling the light spray of the Hudson on my bare legs coming up from the Stella’s bow as she plowed through the water. After tying up at the Tarrytown dock, we headed to the small marina restaurant that made the best hamburgers ever. I can still hear the sound of that restaurant’s screen door. Then it was back onto the boat for the ride south to Edgewater, and reality would return once my foot touched land and I got into the backseat for the ride back home for another week of school.

When I was six or seven,  we also began spending a month on the boat each summer on Lake Champlain in Vermont. However, to get there we had to follow the Hudson River as far north as she would take us and then the Stella entered the Champlain Canal. Dad had a journey log in which kept a record of our progress up the Hudson, marking the town name and the time of day that we passed, towns with upstate-New York names like Haverstraw, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Saugerties, Catskill, Coxsackie, and Albany. Troy would follow, and then Mechanicville, Schuylerville, and finally Fort Edward, where we would enter the Champlain Canal. A month later we would take the same route home, and I would scrutinize each of these named places along the river to get a six-year-old’s idea of what life might be like growing up on the shores of the river for a girl like me, who was happiest on a boat on a river.

My last memory of being near the Hudson was my freshman year of college at Mount Saint Vincent, a Catholic women’s college on the banks of the Hudson, on the New York side, halfway between the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee. I did not want to be at the Mount, but that is another story. The part for this story is that from my dorm room I could see the Hudson.  I could go out on the fire escape at night to sit and ponder my sad situation and it was like having an old friend there for me as the lights of passing boats reflected on her waters.

It should come as no surprise that I eventually married a sailor. He loved boats and rivers, too.  It was at an early age that he set his eyes on joining the Navy. To bide his time during grammar and high school, before he could get to Annapolis, he satiated his thirst for the river and boats by joining the Sea Scouts, a ragtag group of men and teens who gathered on a dilapidated collection of barges on the shore of the river on Friday nights to plan their activities for that weekend. He has fond memories of after those Friday night meetings, setting chairs out on the river end of the barge to watch the tugs passing by, their lights illuminating the still evening water. 

However, his Sea Scout stories are not all that passive. Occasionally they would take a small dory across the river to the west side of Manhattan where the ocean liners docked. The older ships had portholes low on the hull for the crew cabins and usually a wire could be found dangling down as a transistor radio antenna, so a quick pull would produce a crash inside the cabin. As their dory backed away from the side of the ship, an angry head would appear in the porthole and be greeted with laughter and a sarcastic “welcome to New York shipmate.”  On another evening adventure they hailed a large sailing yacht mid-river which was the venue for some sort of celebration, as those aboard were dressed formally and lounging with drinks in hand on her decks. In the growing darkness the yacht captain was confronted by a 40-foot boat, with a floodlight, a siren, and a crew decked out in Sea Scouts uniforms. The stern reprimand he received for his improper running lights quickly produced a profound apology from the yacht captain as the proper lights blinked on. Laughter then enveloped the Sea Scout boat as it disappeared into the darkness after another successful impersonation of the U.S. Coast Guard.

However, the overnight trips up the Hudson to West Point provided the most vivid Sea Scout memories. A predawn departure with the incoming tide meant a sunrise north of the George Washington Bridge with the new morning sun offering an unforgettable illumination of the Palisades.

One of our sons currently lives in Hoboken, a town just south of Weehawken. Pre-pandemic, all his weekend outings took him back into the city where he also worked. The pandemic ended all that, and also introduced a car into his previous mass-transit-only life. Now, most weekends he is hiking in upstate New York preferably on a trail within view of the Hudson. His father and I keep getting snapshots of the Hudson from here and from there, and conversations on the phone telling us what a magnificent river the Hudson is. He now talks of one day having a small second home somewhere up there…his only criteria being that it must be within walking distance of the river. 

I cannot recall exactly how I did it, but somehow over those six months my husband was gone for that first deployment, I managed to save enough money that when he came home from his six months at sea, the tugboat painting was hanging on the wall in our living room. It has hung in each of the six or seven houses which we have called home over his thirty-year career in the U.S. Navy. Someday, I expect the tugboat painting will hang somewhere in my son’s small second home, within walking distance of the Hudson River. 

Follow Us